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In Theaters: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Doc Shaw. (PG-13, 130 mins)

The 2011 reboot RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was one of the biggest surprises in recent years: a smart summer blockbuster with convincing CGI, anchored by the superb motion capture performance of Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar. Even in a mere three years, the technology has improved enough that Serkis, the face of cinematic motion capture between his work as Caesar, as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS films, and in the title role of Peter Jackson's KING KONG, turns in his finest performance yet. Serkis and the other ape actors manage to create living, breathing performances that are visually enhanced by CGI, which is different from letting CGI do all of the work. On top of that, it's just a terrific film, the kind of grand, satisfying, action-packed entertainment that used to be what summer movies were all about. Of any recent summer franchise other than the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, the rebooted PLANET OF THE APES comes the closest to conveying the feeling that these might stand the test of time, certainly more than something along the lines of TRANSFORMERS.


Set a decade after the events of RISE, DAWN opens after a "simian flu" pandemic, generated by the Alzheimer's drug testing taking place in the first film, has wiped out most of humanity and turned the planet into a global wasteland. Caesar is the wise leader of a massive ape community in Muir Woods just outside of what was San Francisco. The apes sign, many speak functional English, and they've created a vibrant, self-sufficient society.  That is, until a small group of humans enters the woods and the trigger-happy Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots and kills an ape. The leader of the group is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a kind-hearted former CDC official accompanied by his nurse wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few others.  They're trying to get to a nearby dam with the ability to restore power to the San Francisco area and after some initially tense unease, Malcolm reaches an understanding with Caesar, who allows them to venture to the dam as long as they turn in all of their guns and let the apes accompany them  Of course, the idiotic Carver has managed to stash one away and of course he can't help himself and it ends up drawn on an ape, prompting Caesar to order all of them back to San Francisco. Malcolm pleads his case by keeping Carver confined to one of their trucks, earning the trust of Caesar, who wishes for peace and for the apes and humans to live their lives without intruding on one another. Caesar's tentative truce with the humans, which is helped by Ellie administering antiobiotics to Caesar's gravely-ill wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), annoys the militant Koba (Toby Kebbell), who holds a grudge against the humans who scarred him and experimented on him in a science lab. Koba repeatedly tries to push Caesar into fighting with the humans, even convincing Caesar's insecure, impressionable son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) to turn against his father. With no other options and determined to start a war against the humans, Koba commits an unthinkable act that pushes the situation its breaking point, quickly escalating into chaos and large-scale destruction.


RISE director Rupert Wyatt has been replaced by CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN director Matt Reeves. Reeves and longtime Alan Parker cinematographer Michael Seresin (MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, ANGEL HEART) shot DAWN in 3-D, but it honestly doesn't add much to the experience and feels like the only superfluous element of the film.  Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver use the little-loved BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) as the template for the first portion of the film with the exploration of the ape community under the leadership of Caesar (played in more classically articulate fashion back then by Roddy McDowall) and his recurring philosophical disagreements with Koba, the new incarnation of BATTLE's warmongering Gen. Aldo (Claude Akins). Like Koba, Aldo commits an unspeakable act but against a different individual and at a different point in the film. DAWN isn't a straight up BATTLE redux, though as it proceeds, it becomes an homage to the second half of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972), as McDowall's Caesar leads the ape revolt against the humans. Serkis' Caesar also leads a revolt--teaming with like-minded humans against Kobe's rebel faction of apes as well as a group of humans led by ex-military man Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who isn't exactly a villain but is more than willing to wipe out the apes if it means the survival of his own community. Almost every character, be they human or ape, has a doppelganger--Malcolm and Caesar in their wish for peace, Dreyfus and Caesar in doing whatever is necessary to protect their kingdom, Carver and Koba in their need for conflict and thirst for blood, Alexander and Blue Eyes as impressionable youths trying to prove something to their fathers. It's these relationships that give DAWN a bit more emotional resonance than your standard summer explosion movie.  There's plenty of that, but the strong points of DAWN lie in the quiet moments with little or no dialogue, in a look of understanding and respect, or a touch of hands to signify trust and forgiveness.


The actors playing the humans are fine, but the key performances come from Serkis and Kebbell. Kebbell (ROCKNROLLA, THE VETERAN) is so good here that he might even steal some of Serkis' motion-capture thunder. He manages to make Koba more than a one-dimensional villain, as early on, he has no interest in supplanting Caesar as the leader and only acts in his king's best interest. Only later, when his hatred of humans and his long-suppressed anger over his physical and emotional scars pushes him into committing the most forbidden of acts in the ape culture, does he turn into a tyrannical, terrifying monster. Motion capture is such that the actors do the majority of their acting with their eyes and their facial muscles, and even more so than Serkis, Kebbell's eyes sell Koba's rage and hatred in a way that's spine-chilling.  It's a remarkable performance in an excellent film in a rebooted franchise that, two films in, has surpassed all expectations of quality and relevance.




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